Sociologist argues every society has jokes about outsiders – including lawyer jokes in the US

Studying humor across societies reveals the pattern that groups are singled out as simpletons or emblems of stupidity:

For the past several decades, British sociologist and preeminent humor scholar Christie Davies has been collecting examples of an odd phenomenon: Nearly every culture has its own version of the Polish joke. That is, every country likes to make fun of people who’ve been labeled as simpletons and, often, outsiders.

In this country, we mock the poor, put-upon Poles: “How many Polish guys does it take to screw in a light bulb? Five: One to hold the bulb and four to turn the chair.” (Polish-Americans became the butt of jokes after millions fled persecution in their own country in the 18th and 19th centuries, often taking up menial jobs in their new American home.) But that’s just one example of what Davies calls the “stupidity joke.” People all over the world and throughout history have differentiated themselves from those they see as inferior and foreign by making fun of them. Take the oldest-known joke book in the world: Philogelos, Greek for “The Laughter Lover,” compiled from several manuscripts dating from the 11th to 15th centuries but believed to have been penned in the 4th century A.D. by the otherwise unknown scribes Hierokles and Philagrios. Of the 265 jokes in the book, nearly a quarter concern people from cities renowned for their idiocy, like Cyme in modern-day Turkey and Abdera in Thrace. Later, in medieval England, people cracked jokes about the dunces who lived in the village of Gotham. (New York’s nickname, “Gotham,” doesn’t sound so impressive when you learn that author Washington Irving coined it to suggest the place was a city of fools.)

The phenomenon is truly global. According to Davies’ research, Uzbeks get made fun of in Tajikistan while in France, it’s the French-speaking Swiss. Israelis rib Kurdish Jews; Finns knock the Karelians, an ethnic group residing in northwestern Russia and eastern Finland. The Irish, it turns out, have a particularly bad lot. Dumb-Irish jokes are equally common in England, Wales, Scotland, and Australia. Although it could be worse: If you happen to be an Irishman from County Kerry, you even get made fun of by your fellow Irishmen as well. The model even extends to the work world: Orthopedic surgery might be a highly competitive field, but other surgeons deride such rough-and-tumble musculoskeletal work as inferior. (“What’s the difference between an orthopedic surgeon and a carpenter? The carpenter knows more than one antibiotic.”)…

Each country’s particular brand of comedy is so intertwined with its social and cultural baggage, in fact, that enterprising academics are using the birth and spread of specific kinds of jokes to uncover hidden quirks of various societies’ cultural DNA. Davies has proven especially proficient at this. He traced the spread of dumb-blonde jokes, for example, from their origins in the United States in the mid-20th century to Croatia, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Brazil, deducing the zingers emerged as women shook up gender roles by entering high-skilled professions. When the so-called Great American Lawyer Joke Cycle of the 1980s didn’t spread anywhere beyond the United States, Davies concluded the jokes were a uniquely American phenomenon because no other country is so rooted in the sanctity of law—and in no other country are those who practice it so reviled.

I wonder if these patterns don’t reveal two common sociological ideas as pertaining to some humor:

1. In-groups and out-groups. We tend to consider our close friends/family/ethnic or cultural group as the in-group while people in other groups are outsiders. Jokes help establish the symbolic boundaries between who is in our group (and who we like) and who is not (and who we don’t know about). This may help build solidarity within groups but probably doesn’t do much to build weaker ties across groups.

2. Threats other people might present – whether they are competitors for similar resources or immigrants – can be revealed in humor. While a group might write off another group and make them the butt of the joke, it could indicate the group making the joke feels threatened.

How might this fit with the rise of lawyer jokes? Perhaps it has to do with a more visible presence of lawsuits, particularly ones deemed more frivolous by the public. Or perhaps it has to do with more visible lawyers who started showing up more on TV and were perceived as grandstanding.

Pivoting toward greater competition

Ryan Singel over at Wired magazine writes about a new start-up called LawPivot that helps start-ups with their legal questions:

LawPivot’s solution is to create a Q&A site where startups can ask legal questions confidentially and then get recommended lawyers to answer the question, which can lead to the former hiring the latter.

While California-based startups can now ask three free questions a month, LawPivot will soon be charging companies $80 for each question. For lawyers, the benefit is being able to land new clients for themselves or their firms, and to build a reputation — though they don’t get paid to answer a question.

Despite potential ethical issues and haughty dismissals by certain blogs, this certainly is where the legal profession is heading.  In a globalized world with plenty of lawyers looking for work, more competition is inevitable.  Fees are going to go down.

Whether Facebook increases the number of divorces

You might have seen certain figures bandied about how often Facebook is cited in divorce cases: this story says, “Two-thirds of the lawyers surveyed said that Facebook was the “primary source” of evidence in divorce proceedings.” But is it fair to then say that Facebook is a primary driver of divorce proceedings? Carl Bialik says the numbers are more complicated than many news stories would lead you to believe:

Some lawyers do say that they see Facebook playing a bigger role in divorce these days, that doesn’t mean the site destroys marriages…

“Correlation is not causation,” Thomas Bradbury, professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote in an email. “Divorce has been around for a long time, long before these sorts of possibilities were present; the newly available information does add a new flavor to relationship maintenance and dissolution, but I don’t think it changes the basic processes that underlie change and deterioration in relationships.”…

These issues are symptoms of a larger issue in divorce research: “It’s very hard to separate out the causes” of divorce, says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and divorce researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

“To do this kind of research requires a huge amount of persistence,” said George Levinger, professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Massachusetts.

Part of the reason is that it is hard to pinpoint a single reason or even a set of reasons for any marital split…

Some researchers have asked divorcees why they divorced, and gotten conflicting results from men and women. Others have looked for factors that predict whether couples divorce. “There are many social, cultural, and behavioral predictors of divorce,” W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, wrote in an email.

Other academics examine couples’ behavior, seeking clues that might predict marital dissolution.

It sounds like this a more complicated methodological issue that still needs to be worked out by researchers: how exactly can one identify the primary cause or causes of divorce? Just because Facebook is mentioned as contributing to a divorce does not mean that it causes the divorce. As you might expect, Facebook itself says this argument is silly:

A spokesperson for Facebook said: “It’s ridiculous to suggest that Facebook leads to divorce. Whether you’re breaking up or just getting together, Facebook is just a way to communicate, like letters, phone calls and emails. Facebook doesn’t cause divorces, people do.”

It is no surprise that lawyers would want to use Facebook data for a divorce case (or other types of cases such as fraud – one example here). Facebook is often fairly public information and people often post on there without thinking about the potential consequences of sharing such information. It would be interesting to hear more about how this data from Facebook is presented in court and the reactions to it from both judges and the participants in the case.

But I wonder if these sorts of figures and ideas about Facebook and divorce have gained notoriety because they may fit some larger narratives about privacy and information sharing on Facebook as well as voyeurism on the Internet. These figures from lawyers could be presented as evidence that people lead dual lives, one in the offline world and another one in the real world. Whether this is actually the case doesn’t matter as much; what does is that the hot company of recent years, Facebook, can be linked to negative behavior.

How to file 3 lawsuits an hour

The New York Times is reporting that the recession is causing a boom for some lawyers:

As millions of Americans have fallen behind on paying their bills, debt collection law firms have been clogging courtrooms with lawsuits seeking repayment.
Few have been as prolific as Cohen & Slamowitz, a Woodbury, N.Y., firm that has specialized in debt collection for nearly two decades. The firm has been filing roughly 80,000 lawsuits a year.
With just 14 lawyers on staff, that works out to more than 5,700 cases per lawyer.
While reporter Andrew Martin makes much of the shock value of the numbers and implies that there is no way such large-scale suing could be done responsibly, these numbers don’t strike me as inherently extreme.  While I am sure that abuse can and does happen in debt collection, consider the following:
  1. 5,700 cases per lawyer works out to just under 3 cases per billable hour (assuming a 2000-hour working year).
  2. Collecting a debt is not like proving that someone committed a crime.  It’s not like creditors have to prove to a jury that debtors owe money beyond a reasonable doubt.
  3. These lawyers are using automation software.
  4. These lawyers have a large support staff (who presumably handle most of the clerical work).

Facebook makes divorce cases easier

Facebook doesn’t just connect friends – it also apparently makes divorce cases easier for many lawyers. According to the Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers:

81 percent of its members have used or faced evidence plucked from Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social networking sites, including YouTube and LinkedIn, over the last five years.

The article contains some interesting examples of participants saying one thing in court or to lawyers and then displaying something completely different in the online realm. It is a reminder that the online world is hardly private.